Federal review process problems mount
Now that the Chicago Plan Commission and City Council have, as expected, rubber-stamped the proposals for the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes, all attention is shifting to the federal reviews that are now underway. JPW has now had time to assess both the requirements for these reviews and the ways in which the City is conducting them.
Signs are that the City – specifically CDOT and the Department of Planning and Development, that are managing the review process on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration – is continuing the no-holds-barred efforts to get quick approvals for the OPC and road construction plans. For full details, see the newly revised Jackson Park Watch website.
“Consulting parties” being shut out in Section 106 review
Interested groups and organizations were able to ask to be a “consulting party” for the Section 106 review that is intended to identify impacts of the proposed OPC and road changes on historic properties (such as Jackson Park itself) and to devise strategies to lessen adverse effects. Jackson Park Watch is one of the consulting parties along with numerous local, state, and national groups concerned with parks, natural areas and historic preservation. This designation is supposed to entail the ability to raise questions, submit feedback, and otherwise have a seat at the table. But problems abound:
- Limited communication: To date, the Section 106 process has been characterized by limited communications with consulting parties, lack of response to questions and concerns, incomplete and delayed information, and the like. The City has not communicated with the consulting parties regarding the comments and questions they have submitted to date. The City does not share notifications regarding meetings, schedule changes or the posting of additional documents with the consulting parties.
- Changing meeting schedules: The schedule of meetings, set by the City, continually changes. Now the third and fourth Section 106 meetings, originally set to continue in May and June, will take place on unspecified dates in July and August.
- Inadequate time for review of reports: Documents are not released in a timely fashion. Consulting parties are hard-pressed to prepare for comments and critiques.
- Unreasonably crowded meeting agenda: The proposed schedule for the July meeting includes the presentation of major reports that have not yet been publicly released. Even more problematic is that fact that the City’s proposed July agenda also includes important next steps that should be grounded on careful review of those same reports.
Overall, the City’s management of the Section 106 review — and in particular the consulting parties’ participation in it and the jamming of meeting agendas — amounts to a subversion of the process. A standard Section 106 review for a project of this scale would be expected to take well over 12 months or more. The City is attempting to foreshorten and compress the review into nine months. This extraordinary haste risks undercutting the validity of the review.
City attempting flawed NEPA review using SLFP as a cover
A National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review is designed to assess the environmental impacts of proposed projects such as the construction of the OPC and related road changes on designated types of properties including historic parks such as Jackson Park. A NEPA review typically addresses a wide range of factors including noise, traffic, wildlife/habitat, air & water quality, and socioeconomic impacts. “Meaningful public input” is required, culminating in a formal public hearing.
The NEPA review is currently underway behind closed doors, concurrent with the Section 106 review. At the March 29 Section 106 meeting, it was mentioned in passing that the City, with no public notice, was beginning to issue documents relating to the NEPA review, documents that have proved to be very controversial. (See “NEPA documents” under “Additional Resources” toward bottom of City’s website.) No public meeting relating to NEPA has yet been scheduled.
As with the Section 106 review, the City’s approach to the NEPA review is badly flawed:
- No public input: The “Purpose and Need” statement that begins a NEPA review should be developed with public input. There has been none.
- Flawed definition of “Purpose and Need”: The City’s definition of “Purpose and Need” for this NEPA review erroneously asserts that the purpose and need for the NEPA review is to accommodate the traffic problems resulting from the completed project.
- Flawed definition of baseline condition: The definition of the “No-Action Alternative baseline condition” to be used as the starting point for the review is critical. In this instance, the No-Action Alternative baseline condition should be the current configuration of the park and its roads. However, the City asserts that the No-Action Alternative baseline condition for the review is the condition in which roadways closure and realignments are in place and the OPC has already been constructed in Jackson Park. (JPW notes that a similar attempt to define the baseline condition as the finished project was found illegal in 2015 in a case concerning the Illiana Expressway.)
- Attempt to use the SLFP as cover: The City is attempting to use the South Lakefront Framework Plan as a cover, falsely asserting that it requires construction of the OPC in Jackson Park along with its related road changes. In reality, the SLFP was an ex post facto exercise that began after the fully developed plans for the OPC and the road projects were announced. The SLFP was premised on the wholesale inclusion of those plans, and no discussion or consideration of alternatives was allowed during the SLFP process.
- Refusal to consider alternative traffic plan: Since the actual “Purpose and Need” for this NEPA review is to accommodate the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park, the City (and FHWA) is required to examine alternatives to the CDOT-proposed traffic plan that would have fewer adverse impacts on the baseline condition, that is, the current configuration of the Park and its roads. The JPW-commissioned traffic plan (LINK) that has been submitted to the City is such an alternative. The City has yet to acknowledge its existence.
- Development of flawed “alternatives”: Using its flawed definition of “Purpose and Need,” the City has proceeded to develop a draft “Alternatives to be Carried Forward” document. See “NEPA documents” under “Additional Resources” toward bottom of City’s website.) It concludes that the only acceptable alternative to be “carried forward” for full evaluation is the CDOT plan itself as approved by the Plan Commission on May 17.
Clearly, there are major problems with both the Section 106 and NEPA reviews. JPW has submitted a lengthy letter to DPD, CDOT, and FHWA detailing the myriad ways in which DPD and CDOT – with seeming concurrence by the FHWA – are violating the legal requirements for the conduct of a the proper federal reviews. (Find the letter at the end of the “How is NEPA review progressing?” section on the JPW website.)
What you can do:
This is admittedly a complex situation, but letters to key officials can alert them to the important fact of public scrutiny. For more information, we urge you to go to the newly revised Federal Reviews page on the JPW website for more background information and for specific suggestions about letter writing.
The Protect Our Parks lawsuit continues. The federal judge has set a new hearing date for August 28, responding to the City’s plea for a delay. Interestingly, the defendants (the City and the Park District) argued that this delay is needed to allow the Chicago City Council to pass both a proper ordinance defining the site of the OPC and a long-term lease between the City and the Obama Foundation. Some might see this as an indication that the Plan Commission actions of May 17 lacked a proper foundation.
The issue of using public funds for the OPC-related road changes continues to get traction. Of particular interest was the 6/30 editorial in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette headlined “Another fast one by Chicago pols.”
The Obama CBA Coalition continues to organize. It will hold a “CBA Summit to Stop Displacement” at the South Shore Cultural Center on Thursday, July 26, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The public is invited.
Our work continues. We need to compensate our legal advisers. We will appreciate your modest contributions! Please send checks (payable to Jackson Park Watch) to JPW at P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.
Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch